Art Essays

Brian Wallace

Published January 14, 2012

Over the past two decades Chinese art has made inroads into the Australian museum and gallery world, prompting Brian Wallace of Bejing’s Red Gate gallery, to put together a travelling exhibition for his native land. To welcome in the year of the Dragon, the City of Sydney will host Two Generations – 20 years of Contemporary Chinese Art. A number of established Red Gate artists such as Su Xinping, Liu Qinghe and Zhou Jirong, have each been asked to nominate a younger artist whose work they admire. The final line-up will feature 28 artists – a lively cross-section of the booming Chinese art scene.
For Wallace this show is a triumphant homecoming. After Sydney it is travelling to the Manning Regional Gallery in Taree, where he was born; then back to Sydney for Art Month, in collaboration with the Damien Minton Gallery. There are also plans to send the show to Newcastle, Perth and Melbourne.
Wallace is renowned as the man who founded the first private art gallery in Beijing, but he is not a multi-millionaire. Like most aspects of life, running a commercial gallery in China is not at all like running a gallery in Sydney or Melbourne. For more than twenty years Red Gate has been one of China’s leading venues for contemporary art, but in a country where commerce is pursued with fanatical intensity, it has gone against the grain. At times Red Gate has resembled a philanthropic enterprise, a meeting place where international artists can get acclimatised to the People’s Republic.
Red Gate is famous for its residency program, which has been running for ten years, playing host to artists, writers, musicians and academics from around the world.
As Wallace explains: “It used to be that artists sent by Asialink would turn up with their grant in their pocket and have to find their own accommodation. They had a studio at the Beijing Art Academy, but just as they were settling in, it was time to go home. We found that visitors from around the world were having the same problems, so we came up with the residency as a way to facilitate people coming to China, settling in and getting to work quickly.”
“We have studios on the outskirts and apartments downtown, because some writers, artists etc. don’t need a big studio space. Some have to be in the heart of things 24 hours a day. It takes all kinds. It’s been a fabulous program and I’m constantly amazed by the work done here – by senior artists, and by those who are young and just starting out. They get through the cultural barriers quickly, and learn that the Chinese language is not such a big issue.”
“There’s no money available in China for this kind of thing, so the artists have to find funding from bodies in their own country, such as Asialink or the Australia-China Council, or pay for their own upkeep.”
“There’s no monetary return for Red Gate because we’ve always run it on a not-for profit basis and kept it very separate. But many of the artists have introduced the gallery to a whole new range of people who may not have known anything about Chinese contemporary art. They’ve gone home and spread the word.”
Wallace knows the feeling of being a newcomer in China with no linguistic skills. He first went there as a backpacker in 1984, and felt an instant, powerful attraction. Two years later he was back on a scholarship, studying the Chinese language. He recommends two solid years of intensive study to anyone wishing to learn Mandarin, with “no partying” allowed.
As he made progress in Chinese he also made friends among his fellow students. Many of them were aspiring artists enjoying their first taste of freedom after the long reign of Socialist Realism, which viewed art as a propaganda tool for the state. While the artists were eager to show their work they lacked venues and encouragement. Wallace took up the task of organising temporary exhibitions, and by 1991 had launched Red Gate Gallery, in a 600-year-old Ming dynasty watchtower in the district of Dongbianmen.
This extraordinary venue was handed to him by the Bureau of Cultural Relics, eager to put the building to good use. Rents and overheads were cheap in those days, although only foreigners had money to spend on art. The gallery proved modestly successful, but as the art scene blossomed Wallace took another space in a hotel complex, more accessible to potential customers.
By 1999 urban redevelopment had altered the topography of Beijing almost beyond recognition. When he was offered the use of the watchtower again in that year, Wallace moved the gallery back its original home, and has remained there ever since.
“When we started Red Gate,” he recalls, “we had no idea where it would go, or for how long. There were no other galleries so it was all very new and we were learning from the ground up. I always had a part-time job to rely on.”
By 1991 the Tiananmen Square events had begun to recede into the distance, and the world was taking a serious look at Chinese art. For the entire period from 1991 to 2008, business kept getting better, with an increasing number of new artists, new customers and collectors. But it soon became apparent that in China one can rarely rely on exclusive representation. Successful artists will sell to clients from museum-style studios, and often show with other galleries. A dealer has to be patient and persistent. Nevertheless, there was plenty of business to go around – until the financial crisis of 2008.
“Up until 2008 it was always up and up, then everyone – despite what they may tell you – took a big hit,” says Wallace. “Most gallerists are still coming out of that. This year was better than last year, and next year will be better still. International interest has always been there.”
Wallace thinks the temporary dip in the Chinese art market will ultimately be beneficial. It has eliminated many of the opportunists who saw art as a short cut to fame and fortune. It has discouraged the feral ‘art investment’ types, out for quick returns. It has brought a new maturity to a domestic market that has been growing steadily since mid-way through the previous decade.
“Some of our local collectors who had to step back during those lean years are now trying to catch up a bit,” he says. As for the future? He replies without hesitation: “Chinese art is going from strength to strength.”
Two Generations tour:

  • Chinese New Year – Sydney Town Hall January 18 to 29
  • Manning Regional Art Gallery, Taree – February 4 to 26
  • Art Month (Sydney) – Damien Minton Gallery – March 12 to 26
  • University of Newcastle Gallery – March 30 to April 20
  • Linton and Kay Gallery (Perth) – June 15 to July 6
  • Melbourne International Fine Art (MiFA) July 15 – August 8

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 2012